The Charlottesville 29

If there were just 29 restaurants in Charlottesville, what would be the ideal 29?

Introducing Mockingbird: Chef Melissa Close-Hart’s Restaurant Dream Come True

At last, her dream restaurant.

The Charlottesville area’s most decorated chef, Melissa Close-Hart has earned all kinds of acclaim — four James Beard award semifinalist nods for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic, and entry on the Mount Rushmore of Charlottesville chefs, to name a few. But, for all of her successes, she has never worked at a restaurant serving the food she loves most.

Born and raised in Alabama, Close-Hart grew up on the food of the deep south. Green beans cooked until they are falling apart. Mashed potatoes drowned in gravy. Chicken fried steak. But, the path of a culinary school graduate can lead wherever the next restaurant takes you. And so, since completing New England Culinary Institute in 1998, Close-Hart has found herself cooking a range of cuisines – rustic Italian, refined Italian, New American, and even Latin-American inspired. But, her heart always remained in ‘Bama. “Southern cooking is what I’ve always wanted to do,” said Close-Hart.

Introducing Mockingbird

Enter Mockingbird. When the pandemic closed her restaurant Junction in March 2020, Close-Hart shifted gears to takeout service from the restaurant her business partner owned across the street, The Local, where her husband is the longtime chef. All the while, the plan was to re-open Junction in one form or another once circumstances allowed. With that opportunity here, Close-Hart thought: why not now? “If you asked me ten years ago what my ten year plan is,” said Close-Hart, “this is it. Food that I grew up on.”

Given all the restoration work that went into converting the historic Belmont building into Junction, no major structural changes were needed for Mockingbird. But, the space did require some tweaks to align with Close-Hart’s vision for her Southern restaurant, somewhere between down home and fine dining. She and her team did much of that work themselves, making it brighter, softer, and more feminine, said Close-Hart, with some vintage tchotchke touches. “There’s so much family and love in the space,” said Close-Hart. “It brings me a lot of joy to walk in and see what we’ve done.”

The Food

Food was a central part of Close-Hart’s childhood in Alabama. She recalls her uncle dropping off heaps of vegetables from his garden on the front porch of her home, which her mother would use to create dinner each night. Butter beans, sweet potatoes, corn.

Mockingbird is a tribute to the food of her youth. While Southern cuisine can have a reputation for being heavy and calorie-laden, at Mockingbird Close-Hart aims to bring a lighter touch to some of her dishes. Take pan-seared salmon with slow-cooked butterbeans. In some executions, slow-cooked butterbeans can be heavy. But, Close-Hart brightens the dish, giving it a summery feel, with lemon zest, rosemary, preserved lemons, and a salad of local cherry tomatoes.

Of course, heartier Southern staples are also well represented on Mockingbird’s menu, albeit with refinements of a lifetime chef. A standard like fried green tomatoes, Close-Hart says, is “elevated” with whipped house-made pimento cheese, a jam of slowly caramelized onions, and a balsamic vinegar reduction. For chicken and waffles, she first braises chicken in buttermilk and hot sauce before dredging and frying. Even the waffles are elevated: real Belgian waffles with pearl sugar.

A common playground for chefs, daily specials may be what excites Close-Hart most. Oysters Bienvelle brings a New Orleans classic to Charlottesville – oysters baked on the half shell in a sauce of shrimp, mushrooms, peppers, and parmesan cheese, topped with bread crumbs. Another special somes from sous chef Alex Straume, who has worked all over Charlottesville, but always told Close-Hart that if she ever opened her Southern restaurant, he’d be there to join the team. Close-Hart loves his creation of deep fried baby back ribs, for which he first braises pork ribs, which he then lightly batters and deep fries. Out of the frier, they get a toss in a honey glaze.

While tweaks can elevate a classic, sometimes a good chef knows to leave well enough alone. For the banana pudding, Close-Hart experimented with flourishes and riffs before concluding that none improved on the original. It’s made with homemade pudding, Nilla wafers, and fresh bananas, “just like it was when I grew up,” said Close-Hart.

The front of the house is in the hands of wine expert Alicia Whitestone, who came to Charlottesville during the pandemic from the DC area, and a decade in the food and drink industry. With a background in various styles of cuisines, she has quickly embraced Southern hospitality, food, and drink. Like her own recipe for house-made Southern Comfort, with dried apricots and herbs.

Of all the aspects of Mockingbird Close-Hart loves, she is most proud that it is employee-owned, a rarity in the industry. While The Local owner Adam Frazier is majority owner, Close-Hart and three other employees own 49%. Their mission? Close-Hart sums it up: “feed everyone’s soul with Southern charm and Virginia’s bounty.”

Mockingbird opens July 20. Reservations here.

Passion Project: Delicious Pizzas from A Decent Slice

Maybe it’s my age, but I don’t always notice messages sent my way on social media. In February, though, I happened to see a comment on The Charlottesville 29 Instagram page from an account called @adecentslice. What caught my eye, I expect, is that it offered to bring me beer from Maine Beer Co., one of my favorite breweries in the world. I accepted, and a few weeks later met the account’s owner at Beer Run. His name, I learned, is Aaron Goff, a food enthusiast with a background in science who makes a living painting homes and businesses.

While painting pays the bills, Goff’s passion is baking, especially pizza. With an interest in chemistry and microbiology, he has long been fascinated by natural fermentation, and sourdough has been an ideal way to combine it with his love of food. His aim has been to create a hybrid of his own favorite style – Neapolitan – and his wife Bailey’s favorite, NY-style. He wondered if he could combine the virtues of both, preserving what he loves about Neapolitan pies, while also creating a crust that, like his wife’s beloved NY style slice, does not flop.

A Charlottesville area resident since childhood, Goff had the benefit of a network of friends in the food industry, whose guidance has aided his pursuit. A breakthrough came in 2020, when Goff met Scott Shanesy, baker and co-owner of Belle. A disciple of renowned Sullivan Street Bakery, Shanesy invited Goff into his bakery at Belle, where he helped Goff troubleshoot his dough and achieve specific characteristics he was seeking. “It was after Scott’s help,” Goff said, “that I was able to really start making what I had envisioned, an amalgam of what my wife and I like most in our pizza.”

Goff has made a lot of pizzas in pursuit of that vision. He and Bailey eat pizza at least one day a week, often more. And, each week he gives away many more to lucky neighbors and friends. We recently invited him to make pizzas for a gathering of friends in our own neighborhood. What makes Goff’s pizza-making so mobile is the use of a Roccbox, a restaurant grade pizza oven that is so small that it is portable. Not unlike a real Neapolitan oven, a Roccbox can approach 1,000 degrees – though Goff has found that 800 degrees is the best temperature for the results he seeks.

We put ourselves completely in Goff’s hands, and asked him to make whatever he wants. He created three “dealer’s choice” varieties, making four pizzas of each. Borrowing a pizza oven from a baker friend (thanks Janey!) allowed him to serve two pizzas at a time, which we sampled throughout the evening. To wash down our pizza, one of the attendees brought some IPAs he had picked up last week, from Maine Beer Co., of all places. The pizza and beer were outstanding. Goff clearly has the talent and passion to make a living cooking pizzas, and has flirted with the idea. For now, with a baby on the way, his pizza-making remains just a passion project. Keep an eye out, though, for possible pop-ups and other projects on his Instagram page.

First up was a white pie of sliced summer squash from Bellair Farm and Radical Roots, mozzarella, ricotta, garlic, lemon, olive oil, and salt.

Next was a red pizza with Bianco DiNapilo tomatoes, mozzarella, red onion, olive oil, and one of my favorite ingredients in all Charlottesville: face bacon from Stock Provisions.

Third was an ode to French Onion soup, not unlike the croissant tribute at Cou Cou Rachou. Stock Provisions ham, caramelized onion, gruyere, and thyme, all joined a stock Goff made from Autumn Olive Farms pig trotters. Delicious, the crust held up under the moisture, thanks to Goff’s dough. That dough for each pie ranged from one day old to three days old, and the progression was unmistakable. Those who like just a little sourness to their crust preferred Day One dough. Those who relish a pronounced sour flavor loved Day Three.

Thanks to Goff, we enjoyed an evening of world class pizza and beer. Sure am glad I saw that Instagram comment. And, oh yeah, here’s the beer Goff gave me:

 

Michael Shaps to Open New Tasting Room

The next chapter has come for one of the most influential Virginia winemakers ever to live. And, he’s throwing a party to celebrate. July 24 is the Grand Opening of the new tasting room for Michael Shaps Wineworks.

After learning to make wine in Burgundy, Shaps came to Charlottesville in 1995, lured by the idea that Virginia had the potential to make world class wines like those he made in France. He first worked as head winemaker at Jefferson Vineyards before launching his own Michael Shaps label in 2000. In the two decades since, no one has been more responsible for the growth of Virginia wine, not only through his own wines, which have received more accolades than any other at the annual Governor’s Cup, but also by consulting with dozens of aspiring winemakers throughout Virginia. Many of the Commonwealth’s most esteemed wineries bear Shaps’ influence.

Ever-growing, Michael Shaps Wineworks has announced the purchase of Thatch Winery, just down the road from its existing winery. Shaps says the purchase will have many benefits: more space for vines, bottling, and warehousing. But, the one that excites him most is an improved experience for guests.

For all its winemaking excellence, the winery’s setting has never allowed the spectacular wine-tasting experience that some Virginia vineyards offer. Shaps has one tasting room in town: an urban setting at Wineworks Extended, which offers flights, wines on tap, growlers, carafes, and bottles. The Thatch property will replace Shaps’ second tasting room onsite at the winery. “It’s exciting to have the ability to accommodate our guests with seating in a peaceful setting,” said Shaps.”At our previous tasting room on Harris Creek, it has always been a challenge to welcome guests and offer a nice ambiance, while being surrounded by ongoing production.”

The new Michael Shaps Wineworks tasting room

If you’ve ever considered joining the Michael Shaps Wine Club, now might be a good time. Even under normal circumstances, the benefits of membership are many: 30% discount on all Wine Club wines, 20% discount on all other wine bottles, complimentary wine tastings for two, 20% off wine flights at Wineworks Extended, access to pre-release and “library” wines, tickets to quarterly parties, and perqs at special events. At the Grand Opening, for example, the winery will invite club members upstairs to the tasting room’s Loft to enjoy “complimentary hors d’oeuvres and a tasting of wines selected by Michael for this joyous occasion.” (If this all sounds like an ad, in the interest of full disclosure I should mention that I have a free membership. But, then again, all memberships are free!)

The Grand Opening of Michael Shaps’ Tasting Room is July 24th from 12-5pm at 1650 Harris Creek Road. (Members are welcome in the Loft from 1-4pm.) All guests receive 20% off bottle purchases all day long, and staff will guide guests through tastings of Michael Shaps Virginia wines and Maison Shaps Burgundy wines. Follow along here.

 

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